In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many other black men and women, deep frustration with the police force in the United States has once again been brought to the forefront of discussions and massive protests. However, while it’s powerful to see people in the country and all over the world demand the dismantling of rampant white supremacy, just because this outcry is more in the public eye now does not mean that they haven’t happened before. Far from it. The struggle against racism and white supremacy has been going on for centuries and is still being fought to this day, not just when breaking news stories decide to focus on it. Nearly thirty ago, the fight was still the same, and a young filmmaker named Spike Lee used the medium of film to highlight this injustice with his 1989 breakout hit Do the Right Thing.
The film captures a day in Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn neighborhood, focusing on Mookie (Spike Lee), a young, black pizza delivery man working in a pizzeria owned by a while Italian man, Sal (Danny Aiello). As characters remark how hot it is outside, we are introduced to various members of the community like Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), a kindly old man who walks the street offering advice to people, and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), a young black man who walks around town with his boom box and gives Mookie a speech on the nature of love and hate. Other characters include Sal’s son, Pino (John Turturro), whose derogatory language and constant hassling of Mookie establish him as incredibly racist, and Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) a mentally challenged man constantly passing out pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. When Mookie’s friend Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) arrives in Sal’s pizzeria, he confronts Sal on the restaurant’s wall of fame featuring only white Italian-Americans, despite the pizzeria being in a predominantly black neighborhood where most of the revenue is coming from black customers. After a heated argument with Sal, Buggin’ Out calls for a boycott. Most of the neighborhood brushes him off, but Radio Raheem joins his cause, and the two of them plus Smiley go to Sal’s that night and demand the wall be changed.
As the argument builds, Sal smashes Radio Raheem stereo with a bat, resulting in a fight that spills out into the street. The police arrive to break up the fight and despite pulling the two apart, one officer maintains his chokehold on Radio Raheem, killing him. After arresting Buggin’ Out, the police drive off and an outraged Mookie smashes the window of the restaurant with a trashcan. The pizzeria is eventually burned down after the fire department and police return to put out the flames and fight back against the crowd. The following morning Mookie and Sal meet up in front of the destroyed building. After a heated argument, Mookie receives his weekly pay and the film ends with the local radio DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy (a then unknown Samuel L. Jackson), dedicating a song to Radio Raheem, followed by two quotes on the nature of violence from MLK and Malcolm X.
Do the Right Thing certainly remains relevant to this day. Police brutality continues to manifest in every state and every city in the country and Spike Lee does not shy away from its evil. Radio Raheem was not the first black man whose life was taken by the police, and heartbreakingly he wouldn’t be the last. The film is dedicated to those who have been the victim of racial violence and continues to be a film people circle back to when these daunting topics come up. It’s a testament to Lee’s filmmaking, but also a harrowing reminder that injustice is still everywhere.
The ending where Mookie confronts Sal outside the ruins of the pizzeria remains crucial for its thematic belief in which loss is more important. Sal blames him for starting the riot the night before and initially refuses to pay Mookie, making it increasingly clear that Sal seems more upset about the damage done to his property than the murder of Radio Raheem. This is something that Lee himself has commented on in Do the Right Thing’s DVD commentary, stating that he’s been asked by several white viewers why Mookie destroyed the window, while no black viewers ever asked that question. It’s understood that Mookie feels immense grief and anger about what transpired and what Lee is calling out in the DVD commentary is exactly what Sal gets called out for in the film. People are spending more time getting angry about the destruction of property than at the unjust murder of a human being.
With the recent protests and riots happening throughout the country, this discussion has once again come to the forefront. And so much media attention on what’s being destroyed underlies Do the Right Thing‘s final message: buildings can be replaced, people cannot. Mookie even points out to Sal that the building was insured and that he’ll most likely recover financially from what has happened. But Radio Raheem can never come back, and this is the same issue we’re currently seeing on a national scale.
Do the Right Thing continues to be a harrowing look at race in America, and how black people have been systematically discriminated against, targeted, and killed by oppressive institutions. It’s an issue that remains relevant even as the film presses thirty-one years old, and it’s a battle that still needs to be fought hard each and every day. With similar injustices persisting, now is crucial for everyone to listen to the voices of those who have been oppressed. Spike Lee started a conversation on the issues, but after that comes the time to do something about it; to do the right thing.